SAN FRANCISCO — As the Phillies were getting set to wrap up a West Coast trip against the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park on Sunday afternoon, a significant piece of news broke back East.
J.P. Crawford, considered the Phillies' shortstop of the future since the day he was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft, started at third base for the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs in their game at Charlotte.
Previously, Crawford had made all 500 of his defensive starts in professional baseball at shortstop. He'd made three starts as a designated hitter.
Crawford, 22, had recently begun to take ground balls at the position before games in Lehigh Valley. He is expected to join the big club for a look-see in September and it would stand to reason that he could take away some at-bats from current third baseman Maikel Franco, who has been inconsistent all season and has struggled recently.
"It's just about versatility," assistant general manager Ned Rice said of the Crawford/third base experiment. "It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete (Mackanin) a lot more options at the big-league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better. Obviously (Rhys) Hoskins going to left field has enabled him to have more of an opportunity. The fact that (Jorge) Alfaro was able to play first base helped get him in the lineup (Saturday)."
Crawford has had a mixed-bag season at Triple A. He struggled mightily for the first half of the season but has turned it on since July 1, hitting .298 with 11 homers, 27 RBIs, a .392 on-base percentage and a .593 slugging percentage in 45 games. Rice said no decision had been made on whether Crawford would come up in September, but the fact that he must be added to the 40-man roster in November certainly helps his chances.
Crawford's climb to Triple A over the last year has coincided with big-league shortstop Freddy Galvis improving his game. Galvis is a defensive whiz who has hiked his on-base percentage to .310 this season — not great, but certainly better than last season when it was a majors-worst .274. Galvis brings other things offensively. He had 20 homers and 67 RBIs while playing Gold Glove caliber defense last season. He entered Sunday hitting .262 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs. Galvis will be eligible for salary arbitration for the final time this winter and eligible for free agency after next season.
Crawford could still be the guy that succeeds Galvis if the Phillies move him this winter or let him become a free agent after next season, but in the meantime, Crawford could play some third base if he can handle the position. He doesn't have the power that Franco does, but his on-base skills dwarf Franco's. Phillies officials have long been waiting for Franco — he entered Sunday hitting .222 with a .276 on-base percentage — to improve his approach at the plate. Maybe the sight of Crawford playing some third base will light a fire under Franco as the team has made no final judgments on his future.
Crawford is the second highly-regarded prospect to learn some third base this season. Scott Kingery, a second baseman by trade, began taking balls there before games this summer, as well. He could be the team's second baseman sometime next season if the Phils use Cesar Hernandez as a trade chip. He could be an option at third if Franco proves not to be the answer.
Basically, the Phillies are creating options for themselves.
"Going into spring training next year, we want to be able to get a look at guys at different positions," Rice said.
He added that Crawford could even learn to play some second base.
"As (general manager) Matt (Klentak) always says, you need the talent and readiness to meet an opportunity," Rice said. "The more different places you can play, that increases the odds of an opportunity. If he shows he can play multiple positions well, it makes it easier to fit.
"This is similar to Hoskins. We just want to see (Crawford) at different places. It's a fact-finding mission. We'll keep him as versatile as possible. Again, I don't think he'll be the only one."